Warning: Spoilers ahead for Discovery Season 4
Season four of Discovery was, for the most part, excellent. We had a first contact unlike any we’ve seen before. We saw Michael killing it as captain and Tilly thriving at Starfleet Academy. We had the return of Commander Nhan. There was a Stacey Abrams cameo. And our beloved crew passed through the galactic barrier. However, the one aspect of the season that could have been handled differently was the culmination of the conflict between Michael and Booker.
For much of the season, events seem to be leading us to a point at which Michael will presumably have to choose between sparing Booker’s life and stopping the DMA. But that moment never comes, Michael never has to make that decision. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted Booker to actually die. But from a storytelling perspective, I did want to see Michael make a choice that she believed would result in his death in order to prevent the DMA from taking countless more lives. After all, this is a season that begins with an episode called “Kobayashi Maru.” And indeed, over the course of the season it seems like the writers want to explore the kinds of decisions Michael will make as captain when faced with an unwinnable scenario. But they never answer that question. At the last minute, they take the easy way out.
Let’s take a look at some of the points in the season’s narrative arc that set viewers up to expect a moment of reckoning for Michael. Starting with “…But to Connect,” in which Michael stands up at President Rillak’s gathered assembly to state that she doesn’t believe they should use Tarka’s weapon to destroy the DMA controller. This brings her into direct conflict with Booker – publicly. And it shows us that she’s willing to do what she feels is right, even when it puts the two of them at odds. Narratively, this feels like foreshadowing. It seems like the show is setting Michael up for when she will ultimately stand against Booker in a bigger way, at a moment when there are higher stakes.
In “All In,” nearly the entire episode is about Michael and Booker opposing each other. They’re literal opponents when they face each other in a game of Leonian poker. And the episode sets up a zero-sum scenario – they’re both trying to get their hands on the isolynium and if one of them gets it, the other can’t (except, of course, that Michael thinks ahead and places a tracker on it). The point is, the episode really drives home the fact that these two characters are in very direct opposition to one another, and what Michael believes to be right is completely contrary to what Booker wants. So as viewers, we’re led to believe that this conflict will eventually come to a head.
In “Rubicon,” Nhan’s entire reason for coming aboard Discovery is to make the tough call about Booker if Michael can’t do it. Michael even spells it out for the crew, openly admitting that that’s Nhan’s reason for being there, even when Nhan tries to sugarcoat it for Michael’s benefit, telling the bridge crew that she’s “just observing.”
In response to that, Michael says, “No, they should know. Commander Nhan is here because of my personal connection to this mission. We need to stop Book and Tarka, and she’s going to make sure the job is done right.”
Bringing a new character (well, new for this season) into the fold with the express purpose of dealing with the question of whether Michael can make this decision strongly suggests to viewers that Michael will eventually be forced to do just that. Why all the fanfare about it otherwise?
So how does it all play out in the season finale, “Coming Home?” Well, now that Reno has told Booker the extent of the damage that Tarka’s plan will cause, Booker is no longer on board. With ninety seconds until their ship impacts the hyperfield, Tarka attempts to beam Booker back to Discovery. Owosekun detects the transporter signature but isn’t able to bring him aboard. Booker eventually materializes on board the ship, but for a while it does seem like he has been killed, though not as a result of a decision on Michael’s part.
As a viewer, this feels unsatisfying. Michael’s seemingly inevitable moment of truth is teased for much of the season, but it never materializes. And not only is it disappointing in terms of narrative closure, it’s also a let-down as far as Michael’s character growth. This was a missed opportunity for the show to demonstrate to viewers that Michael has the ability to make tough calls as a captain.
The question the Kobayashi Maru asks is, does this person have the leadership capacity to make a difficult choice in a no-win situation? Can they follow through with the option they believe will be most widely beneficial, even when some will suffer as a result?
It’s the question Michael grapples with for most of the season. And it’s the same question that’s posed to Deanna Troi in “To Thine Own Self.” In that Next Generation episode, Deanna finally passes the Bridge Officer’s Test, after multiple attempts, when she realizes she needs to order a hologram of Geordi to his death in order to save the ship. She proves that she understands the point of the test was to determine whether she had what it took to make that difficult choice. As a result of passing the test, Deanna is promoted to commander, and it’s a real moment of character growth for her.
Michael, however, is deprived of the chance to prove she can make those decisions, as well. Troi gives us her answer, but Michael never gets that chance. My personal belief is that she definitely can make the tough call – we’ve seen her succeed as a leader in challenging situations time and again. And I think if it had come down to it, she would have made the right decision. But in terms of this season’s narrative arc, she was robbed of a potentially important opportunity for character growth.
Again, the season overall was highly enjoyable. But it would have felt even more satisfying if the conflict between Michael and Booker had been handled differently. Of course, Michael has certainly been through more than enough trauma recently and I would understand if the writers didn’t want to put her in such a difficult position. But in that case, I would have preferred it if the season’s narrative hadn’t been structured in a way that would make viewers expect it.